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Colorado Proposal Would Lead the Nation with New Clean Air Rules

By Mark Brownstein, Associate Vice President & Chief Counsel of Environmental Defense Fund’s US Climate and Energy Program

Colorado is in the midst of an oil and gas boom brought about by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Proponents of this new development cite economic and environmental benefits, and there’s certainly something to the argument that new natural gas is helping to drive dirty old coal out of Colorado’s energy mix – and the nation’s.

But whatever the benefits may be, there is another side to the story. There is no escaping the fact that oil and gas development is a heavy industrial activity that poses significant risks to public health and the environment. While much can be done by both government and producers to minimize these risks, there are too many communities where intensive oil and gas drilling is taking place where citizens feel like nothing is being done and no one cares. This is precisely why the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), with support from funders such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, is fighting for stricter rules and tougher enforcement.

Our efforts are beginning to pay off. This past month, Governor Hickenlooper proposed much needed changes to the state’s oil and gas air pollution regulations. If adopted, the proposal would tighten existing controls for dealing with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pollutants that contribute to ground-level ozone (smog), which has been linked to a host of severe health problems.

The proposal also explicitly regulates methane, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas known to cause major climate damage in little time. As it stands, this proposal would give Colorado the strongest air pollution regulations in the nation for oil and gas development, and make Colorado the first state to address methane pollution directly.

This important turn of events began several months ago with Governor Hickenlooper’s call for “zero tolerance” of “fugitive” methane emissions (leaks from equipment at the production site) and his order to address chronic air pollution problems along Colorado’s Front Range. There is no substitute for strong gubernatorial leadership.

But equally remarkable is how industry and environmentalists have rallied to support this proposal. The state’s three largest oil and gas producers–Anadarko Petroleum, Encana Corporation and Noble Energy – joined EDF in standing with Governor Hickenlooper to support his proposal when it was announced. We all share a common commitment to making this proposal stick.

Progress in Colorado is no accident. A powerful partnership of funders led by Bloomberg Philanthropies, made EDF’s work on the Colorado proposal possible, and is supporting EDF’s efforts to drive change in many other major oil-and-gas producing states, such as Wyoming which this month adopted one the nation’s most robust programs for detection and repair of “fugitive” VOC and methane emission leaks. Ohio is also considering such a program.

It’s a great start but the fight is not over. Formal hearings on the Colorado proposal will be held in February 2014 and despite early signs of support, the opposition will be strong. It’s up to Governor Hickenlooper to stand firm and make sure critical protections aren’t clawed back. All of us who care about public health and the environment need to speak out in support.

Colorado is taking one important step toward controlling harmful pollution. There’s much more to be done to fully address impacts of oil and gas operations. But perhaps this is the beginning of a better story for Colorado, and our nation.